My wind turbine and me
Wind turbines have stirred up a hurricane of controversy – but not everywhere. Julie Brominicks meets the Welsh hill farmers who have quietly embraced them
Snowdonia is wild and high. Trees thrive in the valleys but on exposed slopes they are twisted and bent. Rain clouds gather above purple peaks, where the wind shrieks, and over the gullies, where it moans.
Small farms are dotted about the hills. They produce lamb, mutton and beef – the slopes are too steep and the soil too thin to grow crops. Farmers dig stones from the soil and build them into walls. And recently, on a modest scale, they have begun to farm the wind.
There are no wind farms in the Snowdonia National Park, just solitary wind turbines belonging to individual farms. They’re small, standing just 10–20m high, and produce five to 10 kilowatts of energy, compared to the 100m-tall, 2.5-megawatt turbines used in the UK’s commercial wind farms. National Park guidelines stipulate that the turbines are painted slate-grey to match the hills and the clouds, and must not stand proud of the skyline. Each farm’s turbine is discreet among the barns and stony slopes. Some farmers
would prefer their turbines to be on windier hilltops but, nevertheless, they’re managing to harvest something from the wind.
Among those taking advantage of wind power are three farmers within the Snowdonia National Park. Dilwyn Pughe’s wind turbine produces more electricity than he uses at Rhiwogof Farm. In the foothills of the Cadair Idris mountain, Rhiwogof faces precipitous crags and overlooks Tal-y-llyn lake. Pencoed mountain, which the Pughe family has farmed for over a hundred years, soars above the farm, dwarfing their turbine. “Local people have been very supportive,” says Dilwyn. “There were a few questions in the beginning because people had visions of big ugly things but this is very different. It does make a bit of noise when it turns the pitch of the blades to slow itself down but if it’s that windy, you can only hear the wind anyway,” says Dilwyn.
At Esgairgyfela Farm, a few miles further south, three-year-old Cadi enjoys watching her grandparents’ wind turbine spinning. Her grandmother Meinir Owen says it’s very soothing. Meinir’s husband Dewi – whose grandfather bought Esgairgyfela after the Second World War – is used to the wind. It races over his fields and over the River Dyfi below that meanders its way through the estuary sands. To the Owens, the turbine looks as if it has always been there. “When people come up here we ask if they noticed our wind turbine,” says Dewi. “And they always say: ‘No, we haven’t seen it’.”
Bird’s Rock and the aqueous blue Dysynni Valley hills are overlooked by Rhyd-y-Criw organic farm a few miles to the north, which has also had a turbine installed. Third-generation farmer Alwyn Roberts has always admired wind turbines. “I love the idea of something that can create energy out of nothing,” he says. But he didn’t install one just because he likes them. The technology had to be proven and the economics had to make sense.
Small family farms have been hit hard by cuts to EU subsidies and the single farm payment. Farmers are encouraged to diversify to make ends meet. Some provide holiday accommodation or workshop space; others run courses. But money can take a long time to trickle in and diversification often requires extra work. “If you’re stuck up in the mountains it’s hard. We already work full-time. When renewable energy came along, we saw a way of making an income that didn’t require any labour from us and doesn’t use up valuable space,” says Alwyn.
The turbines are connected to the National Grid so when the wind isn’t blowing, the farms buy in electricity as normal. When the wind picks up, the electricity they generate is used on the farm. Surplus electricity is sold to the National Grid at a guaranteed rate, called a Feed-in Tariff (see ‘Cost vs benefit’ on p62). The farmers also benefit from lower electricity bills. The feed-in tariff lessens the financial risk of the installation cost and halves the pay-back period to six to nine years.
Everyone is relieved by the increased energy resilience that their turbines provide. “We did have an oil Rayburn [range cooker],” says Dewi. “I used to buy oil at 16p per litre but over the last year it’s risen to 40p. Looking at the price of oil and heating going up, there’s a huge advantage to using
Annual savings £3,000
Rhiwogof is farmed by the Pughe family: Dilwyn, 37, Eleri, 37, Enlli 10 and Elgan 2. It overlooks Tal-y-llyn Lake in the foothills of Cadair Idris mountain. The farm is in a Site of Special Scientific Interest within the Snowdonia National Park. The Pughes farm 500 breeding ewes and 24 suckler cows on 1,000 rugged acres of Pencoed mountainside, near Pennal. Next, they plan to install a biomass heating system powered by their own wood.
“I love the idea of something that can create energy out of nothing”
Annual savings £8,000
Meinir Owen (left, 58) and Dewi Owen (61) farm at Esgairgyfela, which overlooks the Dyfi Valley near the west coast of Wales, bordering the Snowdonia National Park and the UNESCO Dyfi Biosphere Reserve. The Owens’ three daughters and their families live nearby. They farm 350 acres and keep 500 ewes and 12 pedigree Charolais cows. They also plan to install a biomass heating system using their own timber for fuel, later this year.
Annual savings £6,000
The Roberts family farm here: Alwyn (46), Karen (39) and their four children (between the ages of four and 13) Cerys, Sarah, Gethin and Ieuan. Rhyd-y-Criw is an organic farm in the Dysynni Valley near Llanegryn village by the coast. The Roberts keep 600 sheep and 70 cattle on 300 acres. The favourable coastal climate allows them to grow barley for the cows, chicory for the lambs and seed grown to encourage yellowhammers. energy that you generate on the farm. It enables us to use the natural resources that are available to us.”
The wind turbine allowed the Owens to replace their oil-range cooker with an electric Aga. The Aga uses cheaprate electricity at night and releases heat during the day, when Meinir bakes her celebrated cakes. “Every afternoon we come in and have some tea and cake, usually bara brith or sponge. We call them wind cakes now,” says Dewi with a chuckle.
SMALL IS BEAUTIFUL
Farmers appreciate that all machines break down occasionally, which is why Alwyn, Dewi and Dilwyn all chose a local company, Anemos Renewables, to install their turbines. “If there’s a problem, they’re up here in half an hour – it’s the benefit of shopping locally,” says Dilwyn.
Alwyn’s turbine needed a bearing replacing once but, apart from that “there’s nothing else really to go wrong with it,” he explains. “I’ve had a look inside and I’m hoping mine will go well past its predicted 20-year lifespan. Even then I’ll have the scrap-metal value.” The same, he points out, can’t be said of nuclear power stations, which swallow subsidies and can take 200 years to decommission. “With nuclear or fracking I’d be worried about affecting someone in the next valley. With wind, the only impact is visual.”
Small is beautiful. None of the three farmers approves of big energy projects that, they say, suck money out of the UK. They are proud to have bought their turbines from a local company. “Farms are good at spending money in the community,” says Alwyn. “We need hedging, machinery, labour, stone walling… When we get money, we spend it on improving the farm. For me it’s important to keep local businesses going. With small projects like this, the money’s all going back into the community.”
At Rhiwogof, Dilwyn Pughe’s wind turbine glints in the light. A distant wind ripples the surface of Tal-y-llyn lake and whistles around Pencoed. “We’ve had our turbine since before little Elgan was born two years ago” says Dilwyn. “He’ll grow up without think there’s anything unusual about it. And as for me, when I imagine what my grandfather would make of it, I think ‘yes – he would have approved of the turbine’,” says Dilwyn.
Is this the future? Discreet wind turbines can blend into the tranquil landscape while providing a surplus of energy, such as at Rhiwogof Farm in Snowdonia